A panel of top political commentators joins Diane to talk about some of the head spinning events of this last year and to get their perspectives on the challenges ahead.
The nation paused last week to remember the victims of a shooting spree in Arizona. At a memorial in Tuscon, President Obama urged all Americans to use the tragedy as a reason to expand our moral imagination …to talk to each other in a way that heals rather than wounds. Police portrayed the alleged shooter as mentally unstable with no political ties. But the attempted assassination of a member of Congress brought attention to the rise of partisan rancor in recent years. Many lawmakers are now calling for a more civil tone in our political debates. We invite you to share your ideas on how to encourage civility in our communities.
- James Fallows National correspondent, The Atlantic magazine
- Jill Lepore History professor, Harvard University and staff writer, The New Yorker.
- Deborah Tannen Professor of linguistics, Georgetown University; author of many books, including "The Argument Culture" and "You Were Always Mom's Favorite"
- Glenn Nye Former representative of the Second District of Virginia in the U.S. House.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. In a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, Americans overwhelmingly describe the tone of political discourse as negative. Both parties called for the rhetoric to be tempered following the shootings in Arizona. In this hour, we invite you to let us know your thoughts on how to encourage civility in our public conversations. Here in the studio with me, Jim Fallows of the Atlantic magazine. Good morning, Jim. Welcome.
MR. JAMES FALLOWSHello, Diane. Nice to see you.
REHMGeorgetown University linguistics professor and author Deborah Tannen. Good morning, Deborah.
MS. DEBORAH TANNENGood morning.
REHMAnd former Congressman Glenn Nye of Virginia, welcome.
MR. GLENN NYEThank you for having me.
REHMHarvard history professor and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore joins us from a studio in Cambridge, Mass. Good morning to you.
MS. JILL LEPOREGood morning.
REHMI'm glad to have you all with us as we take on a topic that certainly has been discussed a great deal over the last few days. But how we get to something realistically different and positive is really our challenge. Do join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to email@example.com. Feel free to join us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Jim, I'd like to start with you. Today, the House begins consideration of the bill with the word killing in its title. Talk about the use of that word.
FALLOWSWell, I'm sure if the Republican leadership were planning this campaign as of a week ago and not a couple of months ago or just after the election, they would have found some other way to have their argument, that the bill itself is an assault on the economy. And I think it's – there will probably be some cosmetic change in the tone of the debate. What, I think, is interesting to me is, simultaneously, we know we're never really going to get the rancor of American politics. Over the arch of the decades and the centuries, people get more and less intense in their criticism to each other.
FALLOWSBut it's useful to have some boundaries, some road markers of saying, okay, we recognize this sort of thing as being destructive and that maybe that images of violent death -- whether they're killing or nooses or bull's-eye targets or whatever -- at least that may be out of bounds for a while. And I think the next step would be if people could avoid criticizing each other's basic motivations. So I think part of the process -- we're not going to get rid of rancor, but if we can say, okay, this is beyond the boundary, at least for now, that would be something.
REHMDo I understand correctly that killing is no longer in the title of the bill?
FALLOWSI believe they replaced it with some euphemism like destroying, you know -- crushing or whatever. I don't know exactly what it is. That's a sign of what I think of as a cosmetic change as opposed to a profound change.
REHMGlenn Nye, as a recently former member of Congress, how typical is this sort of speech on the floor of the House?
NYEWell, unfortunately, it's all too typical. And I was just in Congress just in the last session, the last two years, and I saw a lot of examples of it. You don't have to go any further than looking at the special order speeches that happened at the end of the regular legislative day, where members of Congress go to the floor and get to have a speech up to an hour on whatever they want. Look at the language. And I think Jim made a good point today about how if we could talk about issues without discussing the other side or someone else's motivations or their intention or their frame of mind, we have a much more fruitful debate and really be able to get into the nuts and bolts of issues without criticizing each other or saying that someone else doesn't get it or is dangerous.
NYEThose are the kinds of words -- it's not just if you use the word, killing, in a title of a bill, but those kind of words that politicians use to describe the other side as completely out of touch or dangerous to the country that lead us down the wrong path in our discussion and take us away from the civility that we really need to get back to.
REHMAnd, Jill Lepore, what does civility mean today? And is it different from what it was in previous eras?
LEPOREWell, I think it's, of course, a very important conversation that we're having, but I -- it's important to remember, too, that civility can often be equated with gentility and a kind of quiet niceness. And although I think we need to be very careful about how we speak to one another in the political sphere, I think we do need to debate. And we need, in fact, rigorous debate. Politics advances by debate, and I don't think anybody here is suggesting otherwise. But I think one of the things it's important to remember historically is just how many more people are involved in politics today, how many more people are voicing their political opinions on a daily basis, just to think about the expansion of suffrage.
LEPOREWhen we talked about -- when people talked about civility in the 18th century, they were talking about a contempt refined gentility in a political sphere in a body politic that was incredibly small and restricted in which there were kind of gentlemanly codes of conduct that are quite different from, I think, how most people lead their daily lives. And so that's one of the big historical changes we're looking at.
REHMAnd, Deborah Tannen, the Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, right after the shooting, linked the shooting to the vitriol that we hear in our public discourse. How important are words?
TANNENYeah, and as a linguist, I'm always telling people words are more important than you may think. My biggest concern is the effect that it has on people in their daily lives to be thinking of people that disagree with them as fundamentally different from them, as enemies, and ultimately as somewhat less than human. And I had an experience that I -- that kind of captured that. When my book, "You Just Don't Understand," was published -- this goes back some years -- but it was a book about how women and men have different ways of speaking. And the purpose of the book was to improve relations between women and men by helping them understand each other's ways of using language.
TANNENAnd people tell me all the time that it did help that way. I was on quite a few talk shows. Many of them invited average people to come on and talk about their daily lives with frustrations, talking to their spouses. There was one show I was invited on where -- it was this local show in San Francisco -- there was a very strange man that approached me before we went on. He was clearly meant to be provocative. He was wearing a shirt and tie and a floor length skirt, waist-length red hair, and he said before we went on, I think your book is great, but, when I get out there, I'm going to attack you. That's what they invite me on for. That's what I'm going to do.
TANNENDon't take it personally -- which is, by the way, what we hear a lot about politics and journalism. Don't take it personally. You have to be thick-skinned. Well, the astounding thing was the effect that it had on the studio audience. He began attacking me. Then he began attacking women in general. And the women who had just come on to talk about their conversations with their husbands, as soon as they began to speak, the studio audience became vituperative and aggressive toward them. And the contrast -- the most striking contrast was Oprah, one of the most popular shows ever. And her brilliance was creating connection between people, so that when she invited the average people on, she would talk about how their experience reminded her of her experience. And then the studio audience would give their experience.
TANNENSo those were the very striking contrasts, and I think that this is what's really troubling with some of this vitriol, that it really does -- it's corrosive to the human spirit. It makes people in their everyday lives more likely to approach others in an aggressive and adversarial way.
FALLOWSAnd to extend that, if I could, I think that the -- when there's so much of this tone coming out of politics and coverage of politics, it means that the public's fear becomes defined as the place where people are at each other's throats in that way. And it's been striking to me of -- you can see illustrations of Americans feeling instinctive commonality and willingness to make (word?) in lots of ways. A classic example, of course, is the two months after 9/11, where suddenly everybody felt as if they had things in common. I've spent a lot of time outside the United States. You feel as if any other American you have more in common with than you do divisions with.
FALLOWSAfter President Obama's inauguration, for a while he was very popular, much more so than people -- number of people who voted for him. And so there is this -- at some level of people's consciousness is the awareness of what our politicians often tell us. We have more in common -- what brings us together is more important than what separates us. But the mechanics of political discussion over the last generation in particular have been finding the areas where not only we disagree, but we suspect the others of being bad.
REHMYou know, it's interesting because last week I had Congressman Burgess of Texas on the program. I asked him how he personally might change his own rhetoric. You were listening that day, Glenn Nye.
NYEThat's right, and I sent you an e-mail after that because I thought you asked exactly the right question. And the question was, Congressman, what are you going to do to change the way you approach civility or your dialogue? I don't want to point out or single out any individual representative. This is about everybody on both sides of the aisle. But at the end of the day, we have to move forward in this conversation. We have to ask the question, what are we going to do to change this? Politicians are leaders in the sense that people are listening to them more recently, I think, than, you know, in many years. And that means that we have to set the tone for others in how we discuss things.
NYEYou can be adamant about an issue. You can even be emotional about an issue, but you have to tone it down. You have to draw a line somewhere where you get into when you start prying on people's fears and, like Jim said, start to make the other person in the conversation look like they're a bad person. That leads us down the wrong path. And I think it's important to note here that this conversation is valid even though we don't yet know what the motivations of the Arizona shooter were.
NYEIt's important to note, we're not trying to point fingers at anyone. But this is a moment where our country needs to have this conversation. It's a moment where there's an opportunity for political leadership, for folks to stand up and say, number one, hey, I may have been part of the problem. And if I was, I'm sorry. Let's move forward now. I'm going to lead us the way forward and say let's change our tone. I'll start with myself, and I'm going to be willing to set an example that other people will follow.
REHMGlenn Nye, former representative of the Second District of Virginia in the House of Representatives. He is a Democrat. We'll take a short break here. When we come back, we'll welcome your calls, your e-mail, your messages.
REHMAnd welcome back. We are talking about civility or, indeed, the lack thereof in today's public discourse. Here in the studio, Glenn Nye, former congressman from the Second District of Virginia, Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. Her most recent book is "You Were Always Mom's Favorite." Jim Fallows is a national correspondent for the Atlantic magazine. Jill Lepore is on the line with us from Harvard University. She's professor of American history and author, most recently, of "The Whites of Their Eyes." We're going to open the phones very shortly. Jill, I wanted to come back to you and get you to talk about how the language used in today's political debate differs from that of the past.
LEPOREWell, I think what -- exactly as people have been seeing here -- you hear of a lot -- is talk of good and evil. And I think you hear a lot about life and death. And I went back and -- a few years ago and reread an issue of Newsweek magazine that was published a couple of months after the Kent State shootings, which is, in some ways, a similar moment to this pause and this grieving that the country is doing right now, this kind of traumatic moment in American history. And Newsweek asked six historians this question, what ails the American spirit? Not unlike the question you're asking those of us here today, and your listeners as well, to contemplate.
LEPOREAnd the most powerful answer, I thought, was offered by the historian Richard Hofstadter from Columbia. And he said he thought what was going on in this difficult moment -- this was in, you know, July of 1970 -- was that in an increasingly secular age, young people on both the right and the left were bringing what amounted to a religious zeal into politics. He said, this, I think, is a dangerous way of thinking because when you try to get existential values out of politics, which has to do with wholly different things, you're heading for an increase in fanaticism. And I think that was quite a prophetic statement on Hofstadter's point.
LEPOREIf you think about the decade since 1970s -- since 1970, and you think -- and I don't mean just merely the abortion issue, which is, of course, a painful and troubling one on all sides, but that has actually brought the right to die -- issues around right to die and the death penalty. Increasingly, if you think about the death panels rhetoric of the early days of the health care debate and how that really shaped how people spoke about health care, that these were -- and, of course, in many ways, health care is a life or death issue. But almost everything we talk about seems to reach that level of heated impasse as if we were on the edge, sort of a do or die moment, every small issue that we're debating. Politics is not about good and evil. It is about effective decision-making in a democracy.
REHMThe question becomes, does the political debate spill over into civilian behavior? For example, we've seen an increase in bullying all over the country. Do you feel there's any connection, Jill?
LEPOREWell, I guess at some level I do. I mean, just broadly, you know -- as a parent, you know, the tone that you said is the one that is adopted by people who are following your lead, that really does matter. An experience here I have -- this is similar to Deborah's -- I spent a lot of time talking kind of town hall settings this fall when I was talking about the Tea Party and how historians think about the 18th century and how the Tea Party thinks about the 18th century. In the first couple of times, I went out and did this in public. People in the Q&A would say the most outrageous things to one another, the most -- just vicious, cruel...
LEPORE...startling -- things they would -- the kinds of things that, you know, that Glenn was talking about would be said at the end of the hour on the floor of Congress. And I -- you know, I'm used to a classroom where, you know, the whole point of sitting in the classroom is to find a way for everyone to speak and to have their opportunity to speak and to be listened to and to listen to one another. So I was startled by this. And so maybe the third time I went out to talk, I gave a little preface to my remarks in which I said, okay, I know people have strong feelings, but we are all acting in good faith. And in order for us to have a discussion, we have to begin with respecting the need for dissent. In fact, we require dissent, so let's, you know, make an agreement before it even begins.
LEPOREAnd that's -- extraordinary thing was -- and, here, I completely agree with Jim -- suddenly it was transformed. People, when asked to behave decently, were just actually sort of -- there was a kind of a pall lifted from the room. Everyone was suddenly pleased that more was being demanded of them. If we expect more from people who feel like -- people were thrilled, actually, to be treated as if they could possibly engage with one another in respectful terms.
TANNENYeah, you're talking about bullying. I think it's focusing on something very important here. There's a confluence of influences, and, certainly, the rise of the Internet is playing a role here. So there's evidence that -- yeah, bullying has always taken place. But there is more power to do harm with kids being able to put things out on the Internet or texting everybody. There was -- there's been so much talk about the effect of the bullying of young gay kids and the example of the young man who actually killed himself after his roommate had videoed an encounter and put it up on the Web. So, I think, because of the anonymity of the Internet, we get ratcheting up of a level of animosity, and also because of the power to spread the attacks so widely.
REHMBut, then again, aren't we following examples set by leaders, Jim?
FALLOWSSure. And I think -- I assume all of my colleagues would agree on this. But it's worth also just saying it, that there -- all our patterns of bullying and personal abuse to each other have nothing to do with politics. For example...
FALLOWS...Japan is practically a politics-free society, and school bullying is a terrible problem there. And China, where political debate, as we know, is somewhat muted, there's a lot of friction among people on the street. So I think there are long-term human dynamic issues, but we can connect them to a tone that becomes rancorous from the top and sort of eggs everything on.
REHMWhat about your own experience, Jim?
FALLOWSIn which sense? Which part of my rich experience?
REHMIn which you feel you yourself...
FALLOWSOh, yes. My own...
REHM...have used language...
REHM...that, perhaps, was over the top.
FALLOWSI think -- actually, this week, as opposed to, say, 10 days ago, the next time I write about former Vice President Cheney, I will probably write it in a less accusatory and denunciatory way than before. Because, by the end of his time in office, and also in the year or so -- the first year or so when Barack Obama took office and Vice President Cheney was saying, almost every week, this man is doing a terrible job, he's not really up to the job, et cetera, et cetera, I was on his case. And so I will try to sound -- I know that Vice President Cheney, in his early life, was sort of a paragon of bipartisanship. He was the transition officer from the Ford administration to the Carter administration in which I worked, and there couldn't have been a more understanding and broad-minded person then. So I will try to recognize the full complexity of his public role.
NYEWhich is important because, when we take even fair criticisms too far, that's when it comes back on us, and people start to believe our words a lot less. So it's important that we ourselves understand how to draw the line. Sometimes it's difficult in politics to force ourselves to do that. But I think we also need to recognize right now that, although politicians are leaders on these issues and people do listen and follow them, politicians also follow what's happening in the public. And they are -- they have to respond to it. That's how a democracy works. You know that politicians are going to say things that they hear from their base constituents telling them every day.
NYEThe challenge for the politician then is to know where to draw the line, to take the emotions that they're getting from the folks they represent and distill that down to something that's meaningful for making good policy, and also to be willing to say -- even to their own base supporters -- okay, this is the edge here. We're not going past this line. That's what we need to expect from politicians today, and it's true on both sides of the aisle. They need to be able to say to people, I understand. And we have to understand right now, in America, people are upset. I understand you're upset about the economy and other things. I understand that, but I need to show you where we need to, all together, draw a line. That's where that leadership is so important right now.
REHMHere's a message posted on Facebook by Ron. He says, "Journalists have got to stop letting politicians get away with their endless soundbite catch phrases. They've got to start holding them accountable for everything they say and make them explain themselves." Isn't that what you were doing with Vice President Cheney?
FALLOWSYes. And there is an endless struggle of journalists, which has become more complicated with the changes in the business base of journalism and the fractionated nature of our audience now and the greater difficulty in reaching any kind of broad swath of the American public in trying to say -- without becoming nagging about it -- say -- when they talk about death panels, when they talk about X, Y and Z -- here is what the actual reality is. And that is something that's forwards. There's going to be no permanent fix, but it is something that journalists need to try all the harder at.
REHMAll right. We're going to open the phones now. First to Norfolk, Va. Good morning, Andy.
ANDYHi, Congressman. It's nice to hear you.
ANDYI'd like to suggest that the rancor has increased as the role of government has increased, and so the cost of losing one of the debates has gone up by -- to more and more people.
NYEAndy, I think that a lot of people have recently been getting more and more engaged in politics, and I think that that can be a good thing. There is a reason for that, and a lot of it has to do with consternation that comes from weakness in the economy and a lot of things that people see in the national debate. So we have more people getting involved in the debate. That is why we need to have better leadership from politicians to say, great, welcome, and we're glad you're taking part. We want everyone not only to be involved in the debate but to vote and do the other things that are part of a democracy.
NYEBut, again, we, together, have to be willing to draw a line in how we discuss political issues. And there's a public role here, too. It's not just about politicians. The media plays a very important role and can do more, in my opinion. Diane, I think you've been a leader on that, but I think that we also have to understand that there's a role for the public as well. I think the president made a great point in his recent speech where he said, we need to try to create a country that a 9-year-old girl would be proud of. You know it's -- it really comes down to some basic things when you're talking about civility and discourse.
NYEIf you are using a tone that would frighten a 9-year-old -- and 9-year-olds don't understand all the ins and outs of all the policy we're discussing. But I bet you, a lot of those 9-year-olds in our country could tell you when the tone went wrong. I think if we could ask ourselves that question, am I saying something that I'd be proud saying in front of a group of 9-year olds? You start to understand where that line can be drawn. It gives you a guide.
FALLOWSAnd, also -- to say more about the questioner's suggestion -- I think if we took a long grasp of American history, the role of government versus levels of public rancor, you wouldn't see a close connection. What you would see is times of economic decline, when people are feeling unhappy, when they're losing their prospects and times of war. Those two things naturally bring out more rancor in public discussion. We've been through those.
REHMJill, would you agree?
LEPOREWith the economic decline and the war, yeah, I do. I absolutely agree. I, nevertheless, think, though, for a lot of people -- personally and autobiographically -- the decline is traced in their own lives, and I think that's meaningful and important to remember. I was giving a -- you may recall that Jim Leach, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities went on a 50-state civility tour over the last year.
REHMRight. He started that right here.
LEPOREYeah, which is, you know, a wonderful thing for him to have done. And when he came to my home state, in Massachusetts, he and I -- I was, I guess, supposed to debate him, which I thought was very funny. So I tried to mix it up by being uncivilized -- (unintelligible) debate civility. But we had a really good conversation. But a man in the audience got up at one point, a gentleman maybe in his 50's, and he told a story about growing up and how his father and his grandfather really disagreed about politics, had really, really, really strong disagreements about Kennedy, for instance.
LEPOREAnd at one point, at the dinner table, the son said something -- taking his father's side -- and said something fairly extremist, you know, some -- very dismissive of Kennedy in a kind of crude way. And the grandfather, who was very much opposed to Kennedy, stood up and gave a lecture about the need to never speak that way about the president. And it really affected this guy. And he's -- do you know, I can't go five minutes in my day without hearing somebody speak about the president or the opponents of the president in tones that my grandfather -- no matter what position he took -- would not have been doing.
LEPOREAnd I think that was really powerful for him. And, you know, people in the room were just hushed with thinking about, well, you know, was that nostalgia? Or was that -- no. What was that moment? What was it for his family at that dinner table conversation that set a tone for him going out into the world? So I do think a lot of this comes down to that. And we can say, you know -- and as a scholar, I would absolutely agree that this stuff comes and goes, and there are interesting patterns to it. But that doesn't mean that, you know, in our own homes and in our daily lives, we don't need to face up to it and think about how it has changed over the course of our own lifetimes.
REHMJill Lepore, professor of the American history at Harvard University. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." There are an awful lot of people out there who are saying to themselves, and perhaps hollering back at the radio, that we should be focusing more on gun control and mental health issues rather than civility. How do you see it, Glenn?
NYEWell, for full disclosure, I was the NRA-endorsed candidate in my race recently, so I just want to put that out there. Look, I think it's unfortunate that it takes a crisis in our country. And Gabby Giffords is a friend of mine. It's unfortunate that her being shot and folks being killed in Arizona is what it takes to get us to move forward into a discussion about big issues, like civility and other things. I think we should be cautious in how quickly we move in terms of policy discussions, like gun control, right now. The reason is because we understand it's an emotional issue. It's an emotional debate. If we're going to have a thoughtful discussion on gun control, I'm all for it anytime.
NYEBut I think it -- I think that we shouldn't rush right now. And we've seen a lot of proposals come out very quickly after this shooting on gun control in all different directions. And I think that that's a debate which we need to have. We need to -- in order to have a little bit of civility in the debate, we need to be able to listen to different points of view, and I think we should avoid emotionally rushing in to having a debate. Having said that, I think it's important to continue to have discussions on all topics.
FALLOWSI think that we -- all these things need to be discussed. The tone upheld, like in the mental health issues, the gun issues, I think something where the NRA -- a secret to the NRA's success is that often very much in distinction to the tone that Glenn and I was just having, they suggested that it's an all or nothing issue. If there's any discussion, whatsoever, of how firearms can be used more safely, then that means an assault on all rights to bear arms, and I think that would be a step forward if we could get to the kind of discriminating discussion you're talking about.
REHMDeborah. Oh, sorry. Go ahead, Glenn.
NYEI think it's okay to have the debate. But I think it's important -- and this could be a test case to see if folks try to use language like, well, if you don't agree with me, you don't care about what happened in this incident or other things like that -- we have to avoid trying to judge other people's intentions and motivations again. And this would be one of those areas where you could start to have a discussion about it. But we need to see if we could do that civilly and without questioning each other.
TANNENJust to call attention to the word civility. I think that is often what triggers a response, oh, this is superficial. So perhaps the word civility doesn't get deep enough. It suggests a kind of pinky in the air kind of politeness. But what we're talking about is a stance, that you're not taking an adversarial stance, making the other person into your enemy. And I think that's what we're talking about.
FALLOWSAnd, also, to recognize the possibility, number one, that you might be wrong on some points, and that possibility that minds might change on your side because, otherwise, the alternative of that is essentially tribal politics, in which all that matters is which side you are on.
REHMJim Fallows, he is national correspondent for the Atlantic magazine. When we come back, Curtis in Jacksonville, Fla., Steven in Detroit, Mich., John in Dartmouth, Mass. -- they're all waiting. We'll get to you as quickly as we can.
REHMAnd here is a comment on Facebook about civility from Floy who says, "I think our incivility has something to do with education. I remember when politicians had words available to use to defend their point. Now, it seems that they use those other words because of poor education." What do you think, Jim?
FALLOWSThat's a possible hypothesis, I think. And, again, if you look through the course of history -- in which I'm less expert than Jill Lepore, but I'll offer a hypothesis -- that there are times that this does rise and fall. A tone of angriness among politicians, among different blocks, the public, it goes up and down sort of independent of educational trends. I would think it has to do with these external forces. And part of the process we're going through, even on the show right now, is part of the corrective movement of saying, yes, are there things like going too far. We don't want -- mean to be prissy about this, but we can recognize when we've gone too far and talk about that and, at least for a while, steer things back in a different direction.
REHMLet's hope. Let's go now to Detroit, Mich. Good morning, Steven. Steven, are you there?
STEVENYes. Hi. How are you?
STEVENThe congressman said before the break that now is the time to have this conversation about civility. But I wonder, why now? For eight years, during the Bush administration, the vitriol that I saw against President Bush and VP Cheney was worse than anything I've seen in my memory, and I'm almost 50. A Google search, even now, of Bush gives over a million hits, and they haven't even been in office for two years. And now it seems that all the focus is on conservatives and Fox News, while MSNBC, for example, and the vitriol from Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann, is virtually ignored. Even President Obama made a comment about bringing their gun when the other side has a knife and to get in people's faces. The argument for civility, it seems, itself to be partisan to me. And that's what gives me the impression of being somewhat disingenuous.
NYEOkay. The -- Steven, the point is fair. Again, it has to imply on both sides of the political aisle and to all Americans equally. Do I think it's the right time for this conversation? Absolutely. Was there a wrong time? No. It has to be something that's ongoing. But, I think, particularly right now we are feeling that Americans are very involved in the political discussion, and it is in a way which is not making a lot of us proud. You can criticize individual journalists or folks who host entertainment-type news shows and say, well, I don't think that's helpful. But you also have to be concerned about why there is an audience for that. Why do folks keep tuning in? And that's something that we have to kind of get to the bottom of.
NYEThe only way we're going to fix that is if we set a different kind of example as people in politics and in the media and say there's another way to discuss politics. Whatever your education level, you're welcome to the discussion. But there's a -- there are some ground rules that we have to set for ourselves about the way we discuss the issues.
FALLOWSAnd, also, a brief distinction. The criticism of president – by former President Bush, former Vice President Cheney -- intense and vitriolic as it finally became -- was about their decisions of policy, especially about war and peace. And I think that the reason that there's a different kind of response right now is we're having this spasm of violence, killing lots of people. There should be discussions of civility all the way around, but this is a different sort of moment in our public life.
TANNENYeah, I think we've been hearing about the public and the private discourse. The line between public and private is becoming fuzzier and fuzzier, partly because, again, the Internet, but it was really just an extension of what started happening with television, that the public discourse is in our lives. It's at the dinner table. It's in the living room. It's almost like a member of the family. And I think it's becoming more so now with people being online all the time. So they're getting their news online. And then they're talking to their friends online. And then they're getting information as well creating their relationships. So I think that is making it easier and easier for the vitriol that you see in public to be seeping into the people's experience of their everyday lives.
REHMWe all seemed to be talking, in one way or another, about what is. The question becomes, what can be -- what realistically is possible in terms of real change? Jill Lepore.
LEPOREGosh, I don't know. That is an awfully hard question. Historians, you know, we take a vow. We're not to ever offer a prophecy. But I remember just -- I think it's just last month in Facebook, there was a cover story in The New York Times about Facebook and this sort of group of people that read posts to see if they have crossed the line. Like, Facebook monitors its own conversation because of -- you know, because these are basically hate crimes that have been perpetuated over the Internet so -- which seems to me sort of a weird replacement for the role of the editor. I'm talking about the news editor who are -- you know, and it is sort of filtering of what is written and said that moves from the private to the public.
LEPOREI think Deborah is exactly right. The line has really become vanishingly thin, so that it's not so much -- I don't think that our public speech is different. It's that more of our speech is public. I think, you know, maybe that has been a very quick change in many ways and, sort of, over the course of just the last few years. So much more of what people kind of blurt out in a passion ends up public -- not only public but permanent. And I think a lot more awareness about that would, you know -- and so on and so on -- I think kind of evolved into maybe a different kind of political culture. But I do think we really need national leadership. And I don't think we need it entirely from politicians, frankly, who have a really vested interest in behaving in adversarial way. I think we needed more from journalists, who equally have a vested interest, but who, I think, much -- have larger obligations to truth and to integrity.
FALLOWSAnd, Diane, I asked exactly your question to readers on the Atlantic's website, and hundreds and hundreds of suggestions came in. I think there were two main themes that run through. And people are saying, okay, what will be a benchmark we could recognize, civil versus uncivil behavior in the future? One, there are some kind of capacity for self-doubt, self-criticism, recognizing it.
FALLOWSYou could be wrong. Your team could be wrong. You need to criticize your side, et cetera, et cetera. The other was, recognizing, essentially, the humanity in the other side. It didn't start out being members of the -- of an evil group, the hostile tribe, but -- so those two, basically psychological, spiritual themes simply what came through most of the suggestions.
LEPOREYou know, I actually -- if I could just jump in.
LEPOREI tried to write about that list -- making a piece of it for the New York about the Constitution, because I uphold up this speech that Benjamin Franklin gave in the last day of the constitutional convention, where there had been so much division, especially over the question of slavery during these four months of debate. People really disagreed passionately, as they ought to have, in framing this new system of government. Franklin gave this speech. He wrote this speech in which he said, you know, the only difference between the Church of England and the Church of Rome is that the former is infallible and the latter is never wrong. And he made this nuance, and Franklin is not getting a laugh. I can't believe it.
LEPOREYou know, he made this speech in which he was saying, we are all fallible, that, you know, we can't -- we have to recognize that this Constitution has its faults because we are all fallible human beings. And it's just kind of great, founding moment that we could, maybe, look back on at this particular moment.
REHMLet's go to Curtis in Jacksonville, Fla. Good morning.
CURTISGood morning, everyone. My comment is -- I'll take you back in the first phase of the message and that was, I want truth. I want it from the news media, and I want it from -- especially from those who have been elected to serve the people of the United States. I don't want soundbite. I don't -- if it's a health care bill you're arguing about, call it a health care bill, not Obama bill, not a job-killing bill. Call it what it is. And I want -- give me the information where you're getting your information from. I want more...
REHMOh, dear. I'm afraid we dropped him. Glenn.
NYEYou know, I -- Curtis, I think you made a great point. And if you just -- you know, you could toy with a couple of simple rules of thumb about that. How about, just don't name bills in Congress? You look at the names of bills in Congress, you can tell who wrote the bill, and the name always makes it...
REHMGive me an example.
NYEYou know, it's always something either extremely positive, the saving our children bill. That's -- that one, I just made that up.
REHMBut the Clean Air Act lowered the pollution rules -- regulations.
NYEAnd there are more extreme examples of bill names that would make it almost impossible to be against this bill. Or you have examples on the other side, opponents of bills moving to rename bills something that sounds absolutely unbelievable...
NYE...that you could never behind this thing. Those don't help us get to what Curtis is asking for, which is truth. And I do believe at the end of the day, that's what a lot of folks are looking for. They're looking -- they want to be able to look at Washington and believe what politicians are saying. They want to think that they are going to tell you the truth, lay out some set of facts from which you can choose where you're going to side in the debate. And of all the language that takes you into the critique of the other motivation, the other camps' intentions, again, pulls people away from really getting down to the bottom of the fact and the truth.
REHMSo how do you see, Jim Fallows, the debate over the health care legislation going, in light of what's happened, in terms of going forward?
FALLOWSIt would be nice to think that going forward, there'd be a more fact-based discussion of exactly how much money this bill will save or cost, exactly what sorts of terrible life dilemmas this bill either makes worse or makes better. For example, the whole death panel discussion, anybody who has been through the process of seeing loved ones die knows there is a time when they and everybody around them has to discuss how long this process goes on. That's what was called a death panel in this discussion.
FALLOWSAnd it would be nice to think that we're going to be beyond that. I fear that's not going to be the case. And so, I think, we're going to have, unfortunately, a laboratory in the continued, sort of, obfuscation of American politics. If it can be less personally vitriolic in this next phase, that would be a step. But I think the basic clottedness (sp?) will be there.
REHMHere's a message from Gary, who says, "Talk about rationist (sp?) praise, but actual moderation sets a politician up for challenges from the right for Republicans or from the left for Democrats. Elections are being won by checkbooks that reward extremism rather than ballots that reward moderation. Election financing reform is required for moderation in rhetoric." That's an interesting point, Glenn.
NYEThat's a very good point. And, as someone who would describe himself as a moderate, I understand firsthand the challenges of what that writer has described. At the end of the day, I actually think the better solution there is nonpartisan district drawing. I think there's a lot of consternation among the public in what they see as an interest in taking part in politics. But when they get to the ballot box, they're realizing, wait a minute, am I really having an effect on who my member of Congress is? For example, many districts, in fact, the majority of congressional districts are drawn to be very difficult for a member of the other party to win. And I think that results in, sometimes, people feeling like they're not -- their voice really isn't being reflected in the election.
NYEThat's where I'd focus on trying to change things. I think that would bring about a moderation in the way people talk. Because if you look at the way politicians talk to their base voters, that's where you need to look for a change right now, not just in how politicians talk to each other on the floor of the House. But when they go home and talk to their base voters, what kind of language are they using? If more members represented districts where you had to listen to folks from both sides, you'd see the language start to moderate. And I think you'd see the policy start to follow that and more Americans feeling like they can relate to that process.
REHMIt's my government. Debra.
TANNENWe need to move away from thinking in binaries and polarization, even to say, let's look at both sides. Most issues don't have two sides, so we need to start saying, let's look at all sides. And I think the devotion of journalist to balance -- which is a great thing -- can have a negative result as well. So you say, the Republicans accuse Democrats of this. The Democrats accuse Republicans of that, and then you move on to the next story. So the need to actually -- the service you could provide, by looking further into it, becomes obviated by your concern only with balance.
REHMDeborah Tannen of Georgetown University. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Jim Fallows, you wanted to say something.
FALLOWSI just was saying the point that Deborah Tannen was just making was one of the real challenges for journalism. The reflex of trying to be fair means you have this artificial peering, and you can find, you know, the other side to any issue. The old long-standing joke about this is, you know, now a few words from Heinrich Himmler of the -- you know, defending the Nazis. So moving to a more complex view is one of the many challenges for us now.
REHMTo Cincinnati, Ohio. Good morning, Bob. You're on the air.
BOBGood morning, Diane.
BOBSo what -- along with the fractionation of the marketplace for ideas, we've seen this increase in the level of stridency. In my youth, the number of electronic media outlets were very fewer, and we had something called the Fairness Doctrine, in which I believe the Congress -- maybe FCC -- put forth with the increase in the number of cable channels. I believe the fairness doctrine was dropped as being no longer necessary. We ought to think about bringing it back.
NYEI appreciate the caller's point of view. Although I am concerned with the notion of trying to force balance at -- to some extent, it's got to balance itself out on its own. This is one of the dilemmas there right now. I understand people want to have a doctrine, which says you got to be fair. You got to have all sides represented. That is very difficult to manage though. It's hard to legislate and enforce into being. I think what we would like to see more of is having some leadership from the media and from folks in political life to say, look, we respect other points of view whatever they might be, and I'm willing to listen to them. I'll show, as an example, myself.
NYEAnd I do want to give credits to a couple of folks who have said that recently. My friend Debbie Wasserman-Schultz from Florida, and also John McCain, in an editorial over the weekend, have both recently said, we're going to start with ourselves here. Look at what we've said. Maybe we've been part of the problem, but we're going to be leaders going forward in making sure that we respect other people's points of view.
REHMHow important is Tom Udall's idea of mixing it up at the state of the union? Is that simply a useless demonstration of superficiality? Or could it really have meaning yet?
FALLOWSI think it will be interesting to see, and it couldn't hurt. I mean, I don't think they'll make any profound difference. But as opposed to these kabuki rituals we're used to -- at one side, cheering, the other, in stony silent -- it couldn't hurt.
NYEI think it's an important symbol, that when Americans turn on their television and they watch the President of the United States speak to the assembled Congress, that they do not see one half of the room stand up and sit down every few sentences and the other half essentially sitting on their hands. Regardless of who the president is, that's how it works. They need to be able to see that the room is mixed. Now, is that going to solve all of our problems with some civil discourse? Of course not. But I do think it's an important symbolic step forward to show Americans we understand where we are. We understand we need to have a better conversation and a better way to approach politics, and we'll at least start with this. I hope that we can go forward from that onto more substantive changes.
REHMQuickly. Do you think that the word, liar, would've been hollered out, had everyone been sitting together last year? Deborah.
TANNENWell, I think visual metaphors are as powerful as verbal metaphors. And so I think, yeah, it would've -- it definitely would've been harder.
REHMDeborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. Jim Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic. Glenn Nye, former congressman representing the Second District of Virginia and Jill Lepore, professor of American history at Harvard University. Let us all hope and think in civil terms. Thanks for being here.
REHMAnd thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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